- African Land Questions, Agrarian Transitions and the State: Contradictions of Neo-liberal Land Reform
Sam Moyo’s new book is a timely contribution to an understanding of the “land question” in Africa in its historical and contemporary dimensions. The book continues a project Moyo initiated with his co-edited work Reclaiming the Land: The Resurgence of Rural Movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America (London: Zed Books, 2005). The goal there was to bring attention to peasant organizations and struggles in Africa as well as internationally, and to demonstrate that far from vanishing from the historical scene, the peasantry is still a key economic and political agent of change. In this new work, Moyo explores the roots of the increasing land conflicts on the African continent and the continuing demand for redistributive land reform, arguing that the latter remains a burning issue, possibly becoming a terrain of “liberation-style” politics recalling the anticolonial struggle.
In this context his first task is to dispose of the assumption that the survival of the customary tenure system and the absence of large-scale land expropriation under colonial rule imply that Africans still have secure access to land. Moyo challenges this view; through a lengthy reconstruction of the evolution of land tenure and land use from colonial times to the present, he reveals a pattern of increasing land concentration, unequal distribution of land, and marginalization of the rural population.
Much of the material Moyo presents will likely be familiar to many readers. But its relentless focus on the production of inequalities makes the exercise worthwhile. Especially useful, in view of recent events, is Moyo’s discussion of the ways in which colonialism perverted land relations, even in nonsettlement areas, and how, through labor recruitment programs, colonial policies in many areas created a large migrant population with a precarious and increasingly contested relation to land. Another contribution of the book is Moyo’s country-by-country review of the effects of stateled and market-led land reforms in the postcolonial period, demonstrating that with few exceptions both have been carried out to the exclusive benefit of the international and domestic elite. In this context, Moyo illustrates well how the neoliberal turn has further entrenched foreign control over Africa’s land and natural resources, intensifying the competition for land appropriation and serving as the driving force for most of today’s military conflicts on the African continent.
Moyo’s analysis offers many other insights. It shows how the land question is at the root of the failed “agrarian transition”—that is, the failure of African countries to create other forms of production and employment outside of agriculture. It also examines how land politics intersects with issues that go far beyond those of class to include race and gender: how, [End Page 177] for instance, land scarcity exacerbates gender discrimination with regard to land ownership and use; and how indigenization and deracialization justify an elitist land reform. Such an analysis warns us against reducing the “land question” to one of technological innovation, or interpreting the accelerating process of urbanization as a sign of the irrelevance of land redistribution. Moyo argues that what we are witnessing is a process of semi-proletarianization and constant re-peasantization in a social context in which farming remains the main form of social reproduction.
The book concludes with a section on the composition and tactics of African peasant organizations, a topic, Moyo suggests, that is still understudied. The focus here is on the “informal” movements that increasingly use direct action methods (such as land occupations, or squatting) to gain land or force the state to carry out land redistribution. Contrasting them with the middle class, NGO-supported peasant organizations that mobilize around single issues or projects, Moyo asks whether these land hungry movements of squatters, poachers, and illegal urban settlers have the potential to influence social reform. Moyo does not answer this question, stressing the need for further empirical research.
Nonetheless his book is already an...